Vail Garden Talk column: Starting a small garden and growing some of your own food is easy
It’s really spring now, and that means it’s time to start turning the soil in those garden beds where you plan to plant vegetables. Don’t have a vegetable plan? Well, consider planting an edible landscape. It can be almost as decorative as a flower garden if properly planned. And for all your efforts, you get a lot more nutrition.
New data shows that the simple act of planting a garden may be one of the most important and effective ways that an individual can help save the planet and reduce his or her carbon footprint. Today, with corporate American agriculture, the average food product purchased at a supermarket travels more than 1,500 miles from where it is grown. And a pound of beef takes about 35 gallons of oil to produce.
One-fifth of the nation’s oil goes to producing and transporting our food. But if individuals grew 10 percent of what they eat, we would collectively save more than 400,000 barrels of oil a day. And since each barrel of oil makes 23 gallons of gas, that’s 9.2 million gallons of gas each day.
America now produces the most expensive and ecologically damaging food in earth’s history. I believe that as we see rapidly escalating fuel prices and commodity prices (corn has already gone up 100 percent and wheat 400 percent last year), that learning to grow some of your own food is an important step to a sustainable community.
Starting a small garden and growing some of your own food is easy, and it’s fun. And there is no better way to improve your diet, plus save money on your grocery bills. Vegetables that are grown and consumed locally (within a few days) are shown to have five to 10 times the nutritional value of produce that is shipped from across the country. Backyard gardening is one of the fastest growing activities in the country, even if you only have a small yard or just a sunny balcony or deck.
Most of what you have to know is this:
• You need at least 6 inches of good, enriched topsoil.
• You need a growing site that gets at least six hours of sun per day.
• You need a regular water source.
Then you put the seed in the dirt, water it and watch it grow. Plus, there are many vegetables that do well and even thrive at the high altitudes of Eagle County. And you can mix in many vegetables and herbs with flowers and make a very decorative, edible landscape. High-altitude gardening presents many challenges to growing with our very short season. But this can be managed with many tricks such as learning the right plants to grow, amending the soil properly and creating protective enclosures.
At our altitude, you can get a good jump on our short growing season by starting now. As soon as the snow has melted, and the ground can be worked, mix in 3 inches of compost to your garden (any bagged compost purchased at a garden shop will do) and then cover the gardens to be planted with clear plastic Visqueen for two to three weeks. This creates a small greenhouse effect and pre-warms the soil so the seeds will sprout earlier. Otherwise a cold May or June can delay your crop’s germination (seed sprouting).
Seed sprouting is more dependent on soil temperature than air temps. This also helps pre-sprout any weed seeds in the soil, plus kill off any fungus that might jeopardize the new seeds. (If your yard is still frozen, cover it with plastic anyway. This will help melt it faster.)
There are many cold-tolerant vegetables that can be planted starting in April or May, with a little monitoring and some protections. Peas, lettuce, radishes, arugula, bok choy and spinach all do well in cold temps of 40 degrees to 50 degrees. Even down to 26 degrees, they will just sit dormant at night and then continue to grow well as soon as the sun shines on them and temps get above 45. Most other vegetables need to wait until early June (depending on your elevation) to be planted, when all frost has passed.
I have found that there is not a lot of good information on high-altitude gardening out there. Most garden books are written for the much larger audiences in warmer climates of the Midwest and East. So much of what you read must be altered for our colder, drier climate and poor soil.
Learn more about high-altitude gardening, plus many other tips on how to improve your composting and how it will help build a more sustainable community, in my organic gardening class at Colorado Mountain College, starting May 3. Call the Edwards campus at 970-569-2900 or Aspen campus at 970-925-7740 for more information on the class. You can also call me at 970-328-5324.
Lori Russell is a local gardener and professional landscaper with All Seasons Service and teaches a class about high-altitude organic gardening techniques at Colorado Mountain College. She lives and gardens in Eagle. Contact Colorado Mountain College for more information.